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Summer 2009 | Caring for creation

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Mount Redoubt
One keeps a careful eye on the volcano of the moment, Alaska’s Mount Redoubt; the other measures heat changes in the world’s oceans as part of an initiative behind the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Al Gore in 2007. Read on for news of two alums who go to work every day at the front line of scientific endeavor, where they find themselves engaged in research that is making headlines around the world.

Earth watch

Heather Bleick
Heather Bleick ’03 on helicopter reconnaissance over Alaska.
By Mike Dauplaise ’84

Heather Bleick ’03 was all set to pursue a business degree and work at her parents’ world champion butter factory, when her liberal arts education bore unexpected fruit during her sophomore year at St. Norbert.

Bleick took an introductory geology course as a science elective, which changed the way she would view the physical world forever.Today,she works as a member of the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) team that’s studying and photographing Redoubt Volcano’s eruption in Alaska for the U.S. Geological Survey.

“I started seeing what Dr. Tim Flood was describing from our textbook all around me,” Bleick recalls of that first class. “I would drive home and see glacial features and I thought, ‘This is starting to get really interesting.’”

Her adjusted career track took her to Vanderbilt University for graduate school and the study of ancient volcanoes, followed by jobs with the state of Virginia and the Friends of Acadia National Park in Maine, where she took photographs as a ridge runner.

Armed with this experience, Bleick became one of only a handful of people under the age of 40 hired for the AVO’s Anchorage office. She works with a team that monitors seismographs and webcams 24/7, and, more enjoyably, photographs Redoubt as it continues to spew steam and ash into the atmosphere.

“Given there aren’t many younger people here to fill the shoes of our veterans as they get ready to retire, my daily duties jump around,” she says. “It’s great to be able to draw in a lot of knowledge from what they know of this area. Alaska’s geology is so much more complex than the lower 48. We have to get a helicopter for any field work we want to do, and we get gun training for the bears for our protection. It’s quite an experience doing field work in such a large area and being in the unknown.”

The team of 50 scientists tracks approximately 130 active volcanoes in Alaska, which account for more than three-quarters of all U.S. active volcanoes. Redoubt sits in the Aleutian Range, about 110 miles southwest of Anchorage. “A lot of people have been doing this for 20 or 30 years all over the world, so they’ve seen these patterns before,” Bleick says. “One good thing is, they don’t always agree. It’s good to have some disagreement to keep us on our toes in case things go a different way.”

Redoubt typically sends signals that it’s preparing to release another large ash plume through seismic activity referred to as drum beats.The repeating event is likely caused by fluid trying to push through cracks in the rock subsurface. “It’s similar to Old Faithful, only we’re seeing it here every 30 seconds,” Bleick explains. “It’s a signal to us that says, ‘Here it comes.’ ”

While Bleick and her camera equipment are regulars on observation flights, a mid-March flight may have resulted in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Redoubt had been emitting steam into the atmosphere for some time, but the first signs of an eruption featuring ash particles occurred right in front of her eyes.

“What I really like is going on the observation flights, and I feel pretty lucky to be up there for that event,” Bleick says. “Even for the people that had been working here twenty-some years, not everyone gets to see the start of an eruption.”

Bleick’s photos have appeared internationally on a variety of news agency web sites and other publications, including The Associated Press, Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio.

Redoubt displayed an almost continuous eruption this spring that sent gas and ash emissions to the 15,000-foot level. One burst was powerful enough to send debris 65,000 feet into the atmosphere, which Bleick ranks as a 4 on an informal 10-point severity scale.

The AVO team has a list of places to call whenever a volcano in their region erupts, beginning with the Alaska Division of Homeland Security, the governor’s office and the local Air Force base. Redoubt caused major concerns with its last big eruption cycle in 1989-90, when it caught a 747 airliner in its plume and caused all four engines to shut down. The pilot eventually was able to restart two engines and land the plane safely, but damage of $80 million to the airplane alone provided all the evidence anyone needed that even a moderate volcano eruption can be a big deal.

“This time,” she says, “everyone’s taking it very seriously.”

An ocean of change

Tim Boyer
The study of ocean measurements took Tim Boyer ’89 to Antarctica where he looked at krill populations critical to the food chain.
One call to Tim Boyer ’89 and you know all you need to know about his work: “I'm an oceanographer,” his voicemail states. The message is there to differentiate him from a colleague of the same name, but it underscores that Boyer has moved on from his physics and math studies at St. Norbert to a new field of scientific endeavor.

Boyer conducts research on ocean heat changes at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Climate Laboratory in Silver Spring, Md. He is part of a team of scientists that contributes to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The IPCC and Al Gore were honored in 2007 with the Nobel Peace Prize for creating an ever-broader informed consensus on the connection between human activities and global warming. The IPCC publishes a report on the state of the climate, with forecasts, approximately every five years.

“Creativity is just as necessary in science as in other fields,” notes Boyer, who earned his graduate degree in oceanography from Old Dominion University. “There are so many surprises in the physical earth, and putting the pieces together is helped by having the flexibility of mind that comes from having a liberal arts education.”

Web extra
Read an extended article on Tim Boyer’s work.  >>MORE
Any change in the ocean’s heat content leads to thermal expansion and a rise in sea level. Even a fraction of an inch change in sea level is a huge deal. Since the world is not seeing uniform change, Boyer and his colleagues collect data and make observations from key areas around the world. For example, the ocean is rising in the equatorial Pacific region, but the north Indian Sea has decreased over the past half-dozen years.

One of the team’s primary initiatives, in addition to making its own observations, is the collection of oceanic and fisheries data from governments, navies and other entities around the world. Records from the former Soviet Union are proving invaluable. The Soviets collected a significant amount of data, but didn’t have the resources to conduct research. In some areas, such as the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Murmansk, the Russians had been collecting data since the 1890s.

“We work a lot with the Russians on joint research,” Boyer says. “Thousands of measurements were recovered before they were lost. Without them, we couldn’t make statements about change because we wouldn’t have enough historical data.”

Summer 2009 magazine

Web extras Look here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

Audio Fresh Ink
Original compositions by student musicians.

Photo Gallery Commencement 2009
A gallery of images from this major event in the academic calendar.

Text Extra Environmental ethics
Excerpts from a new work by Larry Waggle (Philosophy).

Text Extra An ocean of change
Tim Boyer ’89 on research honored with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Video A green collaboration
Student researchers talk about their plans for an environmentally responsible science facility.

Photo Gallery Lines of connection
A vibrant multicultural community depicted in new artwork on campus.

Photo Gallery Faces of Japan
Examining traditional and contemporary ideals of beauty.

Photo Gallery Fifty years at St. Norbert Abbey
A half-century of history celebrated this summer.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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